Parenting Kids With An Appetite For Politics

In this week's parenting segment for moms, Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner weigh the value of engaging children early in the political process. Also, Ivey's son, Alexander, and Steiner's son, Max, explain how, as youngsters, they've discovered their own political passion.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents every week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice. Today, we want to talk about party training.

This election season has offered great opportunities to get kids involved in the political process. No matter if you're raising a wee Republican or a Democratic shortie or perhaps even a member of the green party, the seeds of involvement in politics can be planted early. So, how do you encourage your kids to take an interest in politics? Do you even want to? And what do you aim to teach?

I'm joined by Jolene Ivey, co-founder of the Mocha Moms, a parenting support group, and Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of the "Mommy Wars," it's a collection of essays about the real-life dilemmas faced by moms today. I'm also pleased to welcome their sons to the program, Alex Ivey, who's studying at Columbia University in New York, and Max Steiner, a sixth grader at a local school in the district. Welcome, moms and sons.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

Mr. MAX STEINER: Hi.

Mr. ALEX IVEY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Jolene, in addition to being one of our regulars, you and your husband are both public officials. Do you think you've consciously set out to teach your kids about politics, or you think it's something that they just picked up by osmosis?

Ms. IVEY: Well, it's kind of like osmosis, if you would count that as being going to the polls with me ever since you were born.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: So, from the very beginning, every time I went to work a poll for a candidate or for a cause, I would bring my kids along, partially because what else am I going to do with them and partially because I thought that it was good for them to participate. So, they would take the handout and hand it to people also, and most people would be really nice. No matter at which side of the aisle or position they were on, they would be happy to take a piece of paper from some cute little boy.

MARTIN: Alex, what do you think about that? Did you love it? Did you hate it?

Mr. ALEX IVEY: I mean, I thought it was great. I always love debates. So when we were talking about, you know, certain political issues around the Thanksgiving table, I thought that was really fun.

MARTIN: Leslie, what about you? Do you think you've set out to consciously teach your kids about politics? Or you think it's just something that they picked up?

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: I think I consciously set out to make them be aware of politics. You know, I grew up in Washington D.C. My dad is a Democrat. My mom is a Republican. And one of the best things about growing up here was just having politics in the background all the time. And that's one reason I moved back here and wanted to raise my kids here, so that they can have it as just an important part of their daily life.

MARTIN: Max, what about you? Your mom tells us you're very interested. True?

Mr. STEINER: Oh, yeah, I am pretty interested. And the last election, I was in second grade, and I was a little too young to really understand it. But now, I'm 11 years old, and even though I can't vote and most of my thoughts are based on my mom and dad, I still think that it's pretty cool and - yeah.

MARTIN: What do you think got you interested? What most interests you? Do you like looking at the commercials? Do you like going to the polls? Do you like talking about stuff with other kids at school?

Mr. STEINER: Well, it's a lot of fun to talk to my friends about it. Most of them like the candidate that I would like. But it's also fun because there are a few opposed, and I debate with them sometimes. And that's a lot of fun, just to do it in a playful way with some of your friends. But it's also been fun seeing like those commercials about, like, some of the insane things they say, and also, I watch "Saturday Night Live" every once in a while, and seeing those skits, it's just hilarious.

MARTIN: Jolene, what about what Alex - I mean, I'm sorry, Max was talking about some of the insane things that people say. Do you ever worry about your kids being exposed to some of the uglier things that people talk about in politics?

Ms. IVEY: I'll tell you. We were working a poll one time on behalf of an issue that was extremely contentious in our area. And the position that we advocated for, some of the people who came to the poll who were on the other side, instead of being willing to, as I said before, be happy to take a piece of paper from a cute little boy, they were kind of nasty.

And that really annoyed me because I feel like any reasonable adult should be able to take a piece of paper from a kid, even if all you're going to do is throw it in the trash and vote the other way. That's fine. But I think that that particular time is the only time, as far as civic involvement, that there's been a real ugly thing. As long as you can talk about it, you can get through anything.

MARTIN: Alex, do you remember that? How do you feel about that?

Mr. IVEY: I get a sort of biased perspective on it because both my parents are the ones defending themselves in the living room from the editorial in the newspaper. But, you know, generally speaking, I'm not too off-put by the nastier side of politics. I just sort of see it as part of the game you have to get on with and deal with.

MARTIN: Max, what about you. Does it ever bother you that sometimes - I don't know if anybody's - any of your debates with your classmates have ever gotten kind of heated or nasty. Does any of the stuff you hear ever bother you in the commercials or any of that stuff?

Mr. STEINER: It bothers me a little bit to just be like, what? Is that really what he said? But also, at my school, there's a thing called Diversity Club. It's an after-school club where you talk about the elections. And once I went there, it was like the day before the vice presidential debate or like right after, I don't totally remember. And it was really cool to hear what, like, other people had to say, and we also had a little bit of a debate, and that was pretty cool.

MARTIN: It sounds pretty cool. If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jolene Ivey, Leslie Morgan Steiner, and their sons, Alex and Max, about kids being involved in politics, how to get kids involved in the politics, how to steer their discussions, how to keep it all nice.

Leslie, what about you? When you were looking for school for the kids, is this one of the things you were looking for, things like the Diversity Club or something like that, activities that would allow them to express their interests appropriately?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Yes, definitely. And I think it's one of the great things about growing up in an urban area is that, you know, you - first of all, you have a great choice of schools, both public and private, and that there is a lot of diversity, and that it's OK to be smart and politically active, that there's nothing uncool about it.

And I also I think that sometimes, what - a mistake that parents and maybe teachers make is that they think you have to kind of protect kids from politics, either because it's nasty or because it's boring. And I think that kids can handle it, and I think that politics can be really interesting, particularly in a season like this. Max has a six-year-old and a 10-year-old sister, and they have been really involved in it, too, and it's - even the six-year-old held up the Sunday Washington Post and was really asking questions about it.

And I think it's a case where, maybe they won't read it all, and they won't listen to everything, but they kind of can pretty easily grasp the big symbolic changes, that we have an African-American and a woman running. You know, for me as a kid, that was the stuff that really grabbed me. I remember when Carter was president, when I was a girl, and the fact that he had women in his cabinet, I mean, that really changed me.

MARTIN: I know what you're saying because I remember when Shirley Chisholm first ran for Congress and won. I was in New York at the time. I was growing - I grew up in New York, and I remember when she ran for president, and I remember just being amazed by this. I mean, you can do that? Wow! Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: For kids, I think one thing that gets their interest is realizing that they can actually make a difference, that that's not just some slogan. That you can get involved in some issue and whichever way you want it to go, you can work on behalf of that issue and have it happen.

And, you know, one - there's a very small issue in our neighborhood with - my littler kids are saying, how come we can't have ice cream trucks in our neighborhood? And I said, well, we have an actual law in our neighborhood that you can't have an ice cream truck. And so they - I was explaining to them the process. We're going to get a petition. You get people to sign it. You can go to the town meetings and advocate for your position, and maybe you can get the council to change that law.

MARTIN: Or just move. (Unintelligible.)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: It's an extremely important issue.

MARTIN: Jolene, can I go back to something, though, that Leslie talked about a minute ago. She said that some people think that you should protect your kids from this. I wanted to ask you if you ever thought that way, or has anyone ever suggested to you that perhaps you shouldn't.

Because I know you take your kids canvassing with you. I know you mentioned that there was one incident in particular where people were kind of not so nice. There are those who might say, well, you know, that's why kids don't belong there. They don't belong at the polls. They don't belong getting involved in this stuff.

Ms. IVEY: Kids aren't little hot house orchids, OK? They're human beings. They need to learn. They need to mature, and they need to grow. And the best way to do that is to have experiences, and life isn't all about everybody being nice to each other, unfortunately. You have to learn to deal with difficult people and controversy, and the best way to do it is to do it.

MARTIN: Jolene, how would it be if one of the kids said, I really am not feeling this, mom?

Ms. IVEY: I can't imagine it...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: Right now, especially right now.

MARTIN: You can move right in with Leslie.

Ms. IVEY: You know, with such an exciting presidential campaign going on, our kids are just so deeply connected, even the littlest one. He would not be the unifier - let's put it that way - between - in the Democratic Party. He had a very strong position, and he got really annoyed at one of the candidates who he did not think conceded early enough, but that's all I'm going to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. IVEY: And it's not even a position that the rest of us held. My husband and I were not like that at all. But Aaron was definitely very strongly in one corner, and he didn't want to talk about anything else.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: I think, in our family, sort of the ugliness that we've had to face is when there have been - when Barack has been attacked for being African-American, or when I felt that Palin and Clinton were attacked for being women. And, you know, that was something that - I thought it was a teachable moment.

I didn't want to go into the ugliness of it, but you know, we did a little bit and said, look, there are people in this country who think that Obama should not be president simply because he's black. Or that, you know, when they're saying that Palin is unqualified, it might be that some of them are saying, you know, I think a woman will never be qualified. And I'm with Jolene on that, that that's just part of life. It helps to take your kid through it. I'd rather have them hear reality from me than face it later in life when they're all on their own.

MARTIN: Max, finally, final thought from you. I hear you feel that your school should do something special to honor inauguration day. What is that?

Mr. STEINER: Yeah, like the sixth grade, some of my classmates, they've started a petition to have inauguration day as a holiday so the kids can see the inauguration day parade. And they've gotten I think somewhere like, we have a 600-kid school or something, I think they've gotten somewhere like 300 to 400 signatures so far. And we've talked to some teachers about it already, and they're saying it's looking good. And one of our teachers really wants to go the parade, and I think that it'd be good the younger you are to see, like, how it actually happens and to see all that.

MARTIN: Good point. Actually, I wanted to ask you this, Leslie and Jolene. Do you let the kids stay up to watch the returns? They're going to be able to...

Ms. IVEY: We wouldn't let them miss that.

MARTIN: OK.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: You know, our daughter, Morgan, for some of the primaries, she snuck the laptop computer into her room, and she was in the dark.

MARTIN: How old is she?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: She just turned 10.

MARTIN: See, kids today, you know?

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: So, I think there's - we don't really have much of a choice.

Ms. IVEY: They're going to be staying up and watching...

Ms. STEINER: You hear that, Max? You've got a witness.

MARTIN: Alex, final thought from you? What is your best advice for parents who want to make sure that kids are interested in politics, but they don't overdo it? Not that I'm saying anybody in particular has overdone it. I'm not, you know, like that. But what do you think? What's your best advice?

Mr. IVEY: Well, I encourage parents to sort of bring up the conversation with their children, you know. That's an integral part of being a citizen, I would say, and a part of civic responsibility. And I think everybody should step up and take a chance at it.

MARTIN: Alex Ivey joined us from our New York bureau. His mom, Jolene Ivey, a cofounder of the Mocha Moms, joined us from WHRO in Norfolk, Virginia. Max Steiner joined us from our bureau in Washington. His mom, Leslie Morgan Steiner, the author of the "Mommy Wars," joined us here also. Thanks so much for joining us, moms and sons.

Mr. STEINER: Thank you.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. MORGAN STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. IVEY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And on this election day, we pause to note the passing of Senator Barack Obama's grandmother. Madeline Dunham died in Hawaii on Monday after a long battle with cancer. She was 86 years old. Obama has frequently credited her with guiding him through his childhood, and yesterday praised her as a woman of extraordinary accomplishment, strength, and humility. Our thoughts go out to the senator and his family. Stay with us on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michele Martin.

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